Getting angry with allies


We are at that stage in the election campaign where nerves are getting frayed, people are getting testy, and sharp lines are being drawn. The question “Which side are you on?” in the form of “Who are you going to vote for?” is being posed with greater frequency and sharpness, and whips are being cracked to bring people into line. One of the things that puzzles me is the way partisans of one major party or the other react when other people say they will not vote for their preferred candidate. The most venom is directed against those who people think should vote with them but say they are going to vote for someone else.

Take that case of Conor Friedersdorf, who is a columnist for The Atlantic who wrote recently that he could not bring himself to vote for Barack Obama and gave the reasons why.

Tell certain liberals and progressives that you can’t bring yourself to vote for a candidate who opposes gay rights, or who doesn’t believe in Darwinian evolution, and they’ll nod along. Say that you’d never vote for a politician caught using the ‘n’-word, even if you agreed with him on more policy issues than his opponent, and the vast majority of left-leaning Americans would understand. But these same people cannot conceive of how anyone can discern Mitt Romney’s flaws, which I’ve chronicled in the course of the campaign, and still not vote for Obama.

Don’t they see that Obama’s transgressions are worse than any I’ve mentioned?

I don’t see how anyone who confronts Obama’s record with clear eyes can enthusiastically support him. I do understand how they might concluded that he is the lesser of two evils, and back him reluctantly, but I’d have thought more people on the left would regard a sustained assault on civil liberties and the ongoing, needless killing of innocent kids as deal-breakers.

He lists the things that the US government has done under Bush and then Obama that he finds abhorrent.

We tortured.

We started spying without warrants on our own citizens.

We detain indefinitely without trial or public presentation of evidence.

We continue drone strikes knowing they’ll kill innocents, and without knowing that they’ll make us safer.

He concludes that because of all this, he will vote for Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate.

I thought that it was a thoughtful article about arriving at a difficult decision by someone who has always had libertarian leanings and his decision did not surprise me. But the folks at Balloon-Juice reacted with fury (see here and here) as if he had advocated child sacrifice or voting for the Nazis, accusing him of being a secret supporter of the most extreme right-wing interests, rather than treat him as someone who is an ally on almost all the issues they care about.

The problem is that each one of us has our own list of the things we value. Sometimes the lists differ quite sharply and so people vote differently based on that. For example, someone who thinks that tax cuts for even the wealthy are a good thing will clearly not vote for Obama, while someone who thinks that same-sex couples should have the right to marry will clearly not vote for Romney. But even when the lists are very similar, no candidate will fit all our requirements so we end up needing to have some decision rule and each of us has our own private one.

Oddly enough, most people do not get that angry with people with whom they disagree wildly. In such cases, they tend to be resigned and write off those on the other side of major issues as hopeless and not worth engaging with, unless they are close family or in the same social circles where one cannot avoid contact. The real anger is directed at those who pretty much agree on the same list of things they value but differ on the decision rules used when it comes to voting. And so we have this phenomenon of the angriest words being exchanged in intra-ideology political fighting, with epithets like RINOs (Republicans In Name Only) and DINOs (Democrats In Name Only) being hurled by other members of their own party, rarely by those of the opposing party.

This is why Friedersdorf and similar people are being reviled by some on the left-liberal spectrum as if they are somehow traitors and do not care about the poor or gay rights. This is unfair. They actually care about almost exactly the same things as their critics. One may disagree with how they weight their concerns and arrive at their final judgment but surely we should be able to see that they are allies in the broad fight for social justice and change

I recall the time when Dennis Kucinich was running for president in 2004 and was clearly the most progressive candidate in the race. At that time he was not pro-choice and the columnist for The Nation Katha Pollitt said that that fact alone, in her mind, disqualified him from consideration, even though she likely agreed with him on almost everything else. And she had every right to think that way and it would have been absurd to assert that because she rejected Kucinich on that one issue, she did not care about all the other progressive stances he took, such as ending Bush’s wars abroad or on the poor at home.

This is less likely to happen if we had a preferential voting system, where one ranks the candidates in order of preference. In such systems, the first preferences of each voters are first tallied. Then after the votes are counted, the votes of the candidate with the lowest total are re-allocated according to their second preferences. The votes of the candidate with the new lowest total are again re-allocated, and so on, until we have a winner. It is actually a very simple system.

The oligarchy hates that system because it would give people a better way of expressing their true preferences, and thus would exert pressure on the two major parties to listen to those views. They much prefer the present situation where voters are forced to choose between voting for one of the two major parties as ‘the lesser of two evils’ or vote for someone who won’t win and risk the greater of the two evils winning. This way the two parties can bribe us with a few issues we care about (gay rights, a better social safety net, abortion rights) while ignoring us on other issues that we also care about (such as war, civil liberties, human rights).

But since we are stuck with the system we have, we should not be suckered into making the system worse by reacting with fury at those who vote differently for specific candidates. We have to get used to the idea that it is the issues that matter and form shifting coalitions based on them. We should avoid the trap of reacting so harshly against those with whom we disagree with on some issues, or who vote a different way, that it makes it harder for us to join forces with them later on other issues on which we agree.

Comments

  1. smrnda says

    I think part of this is that people don’t just evaluate where candidates stand on issues, but also whether or not the candidate is going to actually be able to accomplish their goals once elected. If you vote for a candidate who is totally opposed to our current foreign policy and wants a complete end to violations of civil liberties in the name of national security, many people see this as voting for someone who, even if elected, isn’t going to be able to make a difference on these issues, and it’s seen as a wasted vote. So it’s perhaps not just priorities, but also what people believe as possible.

  2. jamessweet says

    But since we are stuck with the system we have, we should not be suckered into making the system worse by reacting with fury at those who vote differently for specific candidates. We have to get used to the idea that it is the issues that matter and form shifting coalitions based on them. We should avoid the trap of reacting so harshly against those with whom we disagree with on some issues, or who vote a different way, that it makes it harder for us to join forces with them later on other issues on which we agree.

    I basically agree with this paragraph, but the thought I would have put before it would be, “Since we are stuck with the system we have, we should (if we live in a swing state) make the best of it by, on election day, voting for the superior choice out of the two candidates that has a chance.” I don’t have “fury” for those who would prefer Obama over Romney but choose to vote for a third party, but I will tell them all day long that they are wrong to do so (again, mostly if they live in a swing state that is; I don’t much care who you vote for if, like me, you don’t actually live in a swing state).

    And not to draw a false equivalence, but more than once I have been served up with “fury” in response to this contention, i.e. angrily told that by asserting that a First Past the Post voting system dictates we vote for the lesser of two evils, I am squelching true democracy and betraying important principles.

    Not that this happens all the time… I have also had very respectful discussions on the issue. I am thinking of one friend in particular, who despite being very progressive on most issues has a strong libertarian streak, and who is a strong advocate of voting for a third party. We have had very interesting discussions over this and other points of disagreement, and both value each other’s opinion.

    So in that sense, I agree with the thrust of your piece: Getting all up in somebody’s face because they refuse to vote for Obama despite being progressive, that’s not doing anybody any favors — especially if there reasons for not wanting to vote for Obama are totally defensible! It fractures potential coalitions, it’s unlikely to convince anybody, and often those engaging in that sort of “fury” seem to have a tendency to sweep Obama’s shortcomings under the rug. I will strongly make a case for voting for Obama despite his flaws, but when I do so, I am always careful to acknowledge that those flaws are real, that on many serious and tremendously important issues there really isn’t a “choice” at all between Obama and Romney, and that there is real merit in supporting third parties. I just think, all that being said, we’ve got a FPTP system, so if you live in a swing state then it is the right thing to do to cast your vote for Obama.

  3. jamessweet says

    To expand on my second paragraph, I have been accused of being “part of the problem!!1!!!1!!!!!111″ just for patiently explaining why a FPTP voting system essentially ensures a two-party race.

  4. TGAP Dad says

    I think the wound is still raw from the 2000 election, when Ralph Nader’s presidential bid as a Green Party drew almost entirely from Al Gore’s base. Even with republican shenanigans, Gore would have won handily in Florida but for the ~40,000 (IIRC) votes tallied by Nader. One could argue a similar case against the Anderson candidacy in the 1980 race, although his pull was not quite as heavily democratic as Nader’s.

    The plain fact is that without Nader in 2000, there would likely have been no Bush II presidency. And many on the left can still feel the sting of that.

  5. Henry Gale says

    A vote for Mr. Obama or Mr. Romney is a vote for the pro-war, pro-corporation, anti-liberty, single party system.

    As a result, I will be voting for the most qualified third party candidate.

  6. Pierce R. Butler says

    I really don’t give a damn about the “independent” positions of people in states whose electoral votes are obviously going one way or the other. In fact, I strongly encourage people in such states to vote “third” party, as it undermines the two rotten major parties we need to demolish.

    But for those in “swing” states, this sort of “conscience” voting strikes me as egotistical to the point of solipsism. What matters more – feeling pure, or the actual consequences to people and planet of who holds power in the world’s dominant nation for the next four years?

  7. brucegee1962 says

    I recall that, during the last election, there was a vote exchange program going on. The idea was that, if you intended to vote for a third-party candidate, but you lived in an important swing state, then you would agree to “swap votes” with somebody who who was planning on voting for your second-choice, main-party candidate in a non-swing state. So in other words, if I want to vote for the Green Party candidate, but I happen to live in Virginia where my vote might be the one that puts Romney over the top, then I will agree to vote for Obama if an Obama supporter in California agrees to vote for my Green candidate.

    That’s what I think Friedersdorf should do (if he lives in a swing state). And ditto to the commentor about Nader, whom I still can’t think about without bitterness to this day.

    BTW, I say this as someone who voted for Anderson in my first election in 1980. What can I say, I was young and stupid.

  8. eigenperson says

    I can understand it if a single issue determines your vote. If you think the most important issue is X, and Candidate A is better than Candidate B on Issue X but worse on everything else, go ahead and vote for Candidate A.

    But that is not the situation we face today. Obama is good on some issues and awful on others, but he is uniformly better than Romney. Even on civil liberties, where Obama has been an absolute disaster, he is still better than Romney — remember, this is the man who actually has Bork as an adviser. Conor Friedersdorf is trying to use the situation in the first paragraph to justify his vote, but we are not in that situation.

    Votes have to be seen in terms of their effects. For the most part your vote has no impact whatsoever. This is still true if you vote for Gary Johnson. However, voting for Johnson instead of Obama has two effects. First, it produces a tiny pressure on Democrats and Republicans to improve their positions on civil liberties. This is a beneficial effect. Second, it produces a tiny probability that Romney will win. This is a detrimental effect. The relative sizes of these effects depends on how close the election is in your state. If the election is not close then the beneficial effect is larger than the detrimental one, so you can justify voting for Johnson. But if the election is close then the detrimental one is much larger than the beneficial one, so you cannot.

    I don’t care that Obama’s record on civil liberties makes you want to vomit — unless you are deluded enough to think that Romney is better, it’s the above calculation that should determine your vote, not the feelings in your stomach.

  9. Aratina Cage says

    And so we have this phenomenon of the angriest words being exchanged in intra-ideology political fighting, with epithets like RINOs (Republicans In Name Only) and DINOs (Democrats In Name Only) being hurled by other members of their own party, rarely by those of the opposing party.

    Actually, I just read a comment from a Republican to another Republican where the first said something positive about Romney and the second responded calling the first Republican–and others like him–a RINO for nominating such a “liberal” candidate as Romney. That’s bass ackwards from the way you presented it here.

  10. kraut says

    “Even on civil liberties, where Obama has been an absolute disaster, he is still better than Romney — remember, this is the man who actually has Bork as an adviser. Conor Friedersdorf is trying to use the situation in the first paragraph to justify his vote, but we are not in that situation.”

    Just because Obama is a lesser disaster than Romney justifies voting for him? Choice between cold and hot shiy?

    All that shows unfortunately that in the US with its political system you guys are “FUCKED”.

    In most other countries systems have developed with at least three viable parties, i.e. look to the north of you, were a party (social democrat) that limped along in third position for years came in second because the naturally governing party (the liberals) from a official opposition position could not manage to convince the voters.

    Why is it that there are only two viable parties with only minor differencies in most policies in the US?

  11. eric says

    But look how the Tea Party has been more successful than any third party in modern history in getting their candidates elected, despite in the two-party system. There are a lot of lessons that other movements can learn from, if they care to. Some thoughts:

    1. Start with challenging Congressional elections. They are smaller (meaning you have to raise a lot less money to pose a serious challenge) and more local (meaning their political campaign machine might not be that much larger than yours).

    2. Challenge them in primaries, not with third party candidates. IOW, put up a candidate for a main party that shares most of the values of that party, just with a few differences or a reordering of priorities. Again, you’ve reduced the money and campaigning burden.

    2a. Challenging in primaries also means that if you make it into the general election, you will have the inequities of the first past the post, two-party system working for you instead of against you.

    3. Remember that policy change is a goal too. Getting one of the two big nationals to shift their official platform to be more like the platform you want is a win. It might not be total victory, but incumbents (of that party) pay attention to the public’s perception of whether they have kept their promises. The national platform IS the default promise. GOP incumbents changed their party’s platform as a means of fighting off primary challengers. There’s no reason other movements can’t force the same sort of defensive repositioning.

    4. The presidency should probably be considered a reach goal rather than the first hurdle. I.e., you challenge for the presidency after you have been successful at 1-3, not before. Too many third party movements seem to think they can just put up a presidential candidate, and that’s it. In the modern era, that’s pretty much a recipe for failure. Get a change to the national platform and 40 people in Congressional seats, then think about the presidency.

  12. says

    While I can’t argue with Friedersdorf’s complaints against Obama, the idea that the Libertarian candidate is superior in any meaningful way when it comes to issues of poverty and social justice is a bad joke. This is particularly true when the candidate in question is Gary Johnson, who has demonstrated a Teabaggeresque fixation on cutting taxes and social services, being for example an outspoken proponent of school vouchers and brags about his construction of private prisons during his time as Governor.

  13. d.f.manno says

    The reason the Balloon Juices et al. are so vehement is that Friedersdorf and others are calling them out on their hypocrisy. Many Democrats vociferously opposed Bush II’s handling of the War on Terror™, national security, and the concomitant civil liberties issues, and rightly so. Now that Obama is in office and at best is doing the same things as his predecessor, and at worst doing far more reprehensible acts (e.g., secret kill lists), many are silent on the abuses.

    The Obama supporters are wrong, know that they are wrong, and don’t like being reminded that they are wrong, and so they lash out at the Friedersdorfs.

    I voted for Obama in 2008. Not this time. That he has arrogated the authority to order the execution of U.S. citizens unilaterally and without any form of due process is the end of the rule of law in this country. Voting for him would constitute complicity in his lawless actions, and I will not be complicit.

  14. Stacy says

    A vote for Mr. Obama or Mr. Romney is a vote for the pro-war, pro-corporation, anti-liberty, single party system.

    As a result, I will be voting for the most qualified third party candidate.

    If you vote for the libertarian candidate, you will be voting for Mr. Obama.

    If you vote for the Green or Peace and Freedom candidate, you will be voting for Mr. Romney.

    That’s the reality of our voting system. If we want choices beyond the two major parties, we need to change our FPTP voting system. See James Sweet’s comment #2 above.

  15. Stacy says

    Yes.

    It is time to start agitating for a change to our voting system.

    Before that can happen, people have to understand that our First Past the Post (FPTP) system guarantees that we are and will continue to be stuck with two major parties and “lesser of two evils” voting as the only viable strategy.

    I recommend this book: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/20/books/20masl.html?_r=0

  16. Jared A says

    I am not sure if I entirely agree with your logic. If Henry Gale votes for a 3rd party candidate, it doesn’t change who it is a functional vote for depending on the 3rd party. It’s just about his preference:

    a) If Henry Gale slightly prefers Obama and votes for ANY 3rd party candidate than it is functionally a vote for Romney

    b) If he slightly prefers Romney, etc. etc., then it is a for Obama.

    c) If he prefers to stay at home over voting for either Obama or Romney, then his vote for a 3rd party candidate has no effect on the race

  17. Jared A says

    So Mano…

    I don’t recall if you have already said who you are voting for. I admit that I am interested thought I do understand if you prefer not to say.

  18. d.f.manno says

    It’s “Manno.”

    I haven’t decided. It will either be Jill Stein (Green Party) or Stewart Alexander (Socialist Party USA). Of the third party candidates they’re closest to my views.

  19. M, Supreme Anarch of the Queer Illuminati says

    The plain fact is that without Nader in 2000, there would likely have been no Bush II presidency

    Without deliberately confusing ballots, there would likely have been no Bush II presidency. Without purges of black voters, there would likely have been no Bush II presidency. Without the SCOTUS stepping in and deciding the election, there would likely have been no Bush II presidency. And yet the one of these that the centrist and center-right types — the Democrats — focus on is the one that pushes the claim (which you also make) that the Left is part of “Gore’s [or the Democrats’ generally] base” rather than an actual political tendency with positions far from what the Democrats have come to stand for.

    Focusing on blaming Nader is a way of claiming ownership of the votes of people you have no intention of actually representing while implicitly giving a pass to the more significant right-wing factors in the 2000 election.

  20. M, Supreme Anarch of the Queer Illuminati says

    More magical “the center legitimately owns the votes of the entire Left” thinking?

    I’m in California. This state is going to Obama all wrapped up with a bow. Why do I owe my vote to a corporate militarist? If I were in a state where the vote were close, Obama would probably get my clothespin vote — he wants to do somewhat less in terms of killing and human-rights violations than Romney. A California vote for a socialist candidate is a vote for Romney now, though?

  21. M, Supreme Anarch of the Queer Illuminati says

    I know, right? “I’m concerned about civil rights, so I’ll vote for the party that insists that rights are proportional to wealth.”

  22. jedibear says

    Given our electoral system, a vote for a third-party candidate is at best ineffectual.

    No matter how much you want it to be, the 2012 US presidential election is not a referendum on extralegal drone murder, torture, extraordinary rendition, state surveillance, indefinite detention, or any other beef you might have with Obama.

    This is because there are only two possible winners, and their opinions on these subjects are indistinguishable.

    The choice then comes down to the differences between the two men. Character. Qualifications. The few vitally important issues upon which they are known to differ.

    If your failure to understand the situation leads to a poor strategic decision that makes you useless (or worse) to your putative allies, they have a right to be mad at you.

    They are right to be mad at you because you are betraying them.

    Of course, I’m not going to be mad at Friedersdorf I had no expectations of him, after all. Meanwhile, his willingness to vote for a Libertarian makes fully clear that he is no ally of mine and never was. Libertarians are wrong on every issue of substance, and oppose even war for the wrong reasons and in the wrong ways.

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